“Timbuktu” transports us. Not simply in the sense of transporting us through space and time, as any film does, but in the sense of transporting us into a foreign consciousness. To tell its story, “Timbuktu” intervenes in the normal flow of Western consciousness. This begins with simple changes of scenery (vast and mostly empty desert backdrops, black and silent desert nights, sand-colored cities, humans with brown skin living in tents, etc.) and ends with changes in our cultural and ideological filters through which we experience life. Whether and to what degree these deeper changes endure after the film has ended is up to you.
The Michigan Theater
Cohen Media Group
“Timbuktu” stations viewers in the highly volatile city of Timbuktu, Mali, located in northwestern Africa. The infamous black flag that most Americans will associate with the Islamic State appears in the first few minutes of the film. Interestingly, the characters never call this ruling band of Islamic jihadists by that name or any of its variations (IS, ISIS or, Obama’s preference, ISIL). That’s because the militant jihadists occupying Timbuktu in this film are not in fact ISIS, but Ansar Dine. To many Americans the difference may appear negligible – these Islamic fundamentalist militants are still killing people for seemingly ridiculous reasons, like playing music or smoking cigarettes. But American audiences cannot avoid noticing that these militants’ victims are not Americans, but Africans. (Indeed, the United States is never mentioned in the film.)
The film’s slow pace builds tension gradually, accenting key moments of action and violence (similar, in this regard, to “Foxcatcher,” and the polar opposite of the “Fast and Furious” series). The strict economy of dialogue and the effective use of silence may irk (and perhaps intrigue) those of us accustomed to rapid-fire conversation, either in our personal lives or in film. As it turns out, everything need not always be communicated so explicitly or done so obviously. Indeed, “Timbuktu” demonstrates great reservation in dialogue, and yet the precise diction along with choice of shots and other non-verbal elements develops into a language that communicates more than the most verbose Hollywood motion picture.
One might think that the stark cultural differences between us (e.g., Westerners) and them (e.g., the characters in “Timbuktu” and the people they represent) would overwhelm us to the point of not understanding basic aspects of the drama. Not so. The weight of the drama hangs heavy on us all the more. Though we may not fully agree with, say, Kidane’s retaliation against the fisherman who slayed his cow, if we allow ourselves to be cinematically immersed in this other world and its people’s way of life, we can understand the causes and motives of his action. “Humiliation” is the key word here, as elsewhere in this film, to describe the enduring, underlying cause that moves the people toward desperation and then toward evil. But I don’t wish to mislead: You won’t be spoon fed any easy moral truths in “Timbuktu.” If you’re looking for that, I hear pirated copies of “American Sniper” are now available.
Where “American Sniper” failed, “Timbuktu” succeeds: The film invites us to empathize with its characters, including the Muslims. It does not invite empathy with the so-called “terrorists,” although there’s certainly room for that; rather that is to invite us to empathize with the ordinary folk, like the poor fisherman, the orphan shepherd boy or the odd-but-wise rooster lady. By empathizing with these characters, we extend our minds across the artificial boundaries set between ourselves (e.g., the U.S.) and other peoples, and we recognize that “they” are fundamentally just like “us.”
“Timbuktu” doesn’t let one drop of blood go unnoticed: It’s almost as if the filmmakers are crazy enough to believe that human blood is sacred! (an idea for which Hollywood war movies rarely have regard). Instead of Call of Duty-style shootouts killing faceless, soulless non-entities, “Timbuktu” makes you realize that when you kill your enemy, an actual person dies. This highly sensitive treatment of human life might challenge our gun-slinging, American cowboy sensibilities, but it’s worth experiencing if for no other reason than to appreciate the contrast.